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Theodicy at the Movies: Ponette (1996)

ponette

Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the second in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades, national cinemas, and faith traditions.

Ponette begins with a shot of the title character, a four-year old girl, lying in a hospital bed. Her arm is in a cast. Her father is telling her that her mother is hurt very badly, and may die. Her expression does not change. She gazes up at the ceiling, sucking calmly on the thumb that is poking through her cast. This is inconceivable. It means nothing to her.

ponette2The film cuts to Ponette riding in the car with her father, on their way to stay with her young cousins, Matiaz and Delphine. Her father is upset. He rages about her mother’s stupidity and carelessness for being in a car accident. Ponette defends her. Finally they stop and get out of the car. Ponette’s father carries her on his shoulders and makes her promise that she will never die. Then he tells her that her mother is dead. In that moment, her entire world crumbles around her, and she will spend the rest of the movie trying to put it back together.

For the most part, she undertakes this task alone. The adults in her life (and there are very few) are sympathetic but inept. Her father is the worst, too caught up in his own anger and grief to be of any use to her, and absent for much of the film. He is also, seemingly, an atheist, and has little patience for the religious “delusions” that Ponette is picking up from everyone else. The others feed her on a steady diet of platitudes and theology that is way over her head. Everyone (except her father) seems to agree that her mother still exists, somewhere, but she cannot come back. (“Only zombies can,” says cousin Matiaz, who appears to be the same age she is.) Or can she?

Ponette’s Aunt Claire tells her the story of the Resurrection of Jesus. She is enthralled: “He got back to normal? And mommy? Will she come back to life, too?”

“She’s with Jesus. One day, everyone will be resurrected. Everyone will be together: mommy, daddy, you …”

“When will that happen?”

“It will happen when God wants it to happen.”

ponette9Naturally, the one thing she takes from all this is that she should go sit and wait for this to happen. She spends the better part of a few days parked in the same spot outside before her aunt realizes what she is doing: “I’m sorry. […] You shouldn’t wait. She won’t come. Jesus came back, but when other people die, they don’t really come back. She hears you, sees you, and she still loves you. But she can’t come back. I’m sure of it.” Ponette is not convinced. Maybe her mother won’t come back because no one else wants her to come back.

A few days or weeks later, Ponette is sent off to boarding school with Matiaz and Delphine. The woman in charge of her dorm floor, Aurélie, is even less helpful than her aunt, full of shallow bromides and syrupy smiles like a walking, talking “Precious Moments” figurine. Taking Ponette to the bathroom late one night, the two have a conversation about her mood:

“You shouldn’t be too sad. Your mommy was sad too. She cried on her way to heaven. God cried as he waited for her. When God was Jesus on Earth, he also cried. But usually he’s as joyful as a child.”

Ponette knows better: “It’s not joyful being a child.”

“When we need God, he makes a sign. He touches you and you feel better.”

“He didn’t touch me.”

“You weren’t paying attention.”

“I was too! But I don’t know what he looks like. […] Daddy says that it’s not true. And that it won’t stop me from hurting. It’s not nice to lie to me!”

ponette6Noticing that she is still sad and withdrawn, Ponette’s older, world-wise cousin, Delphine (who is perhaps 6), tells her she should talk to Ada. Ada is the only Jewish girl at the school, and being Jewish, she is a “Child of God,” and may wield some special influence with the Big Man Upstairs. Ada confirms this, and offers to put Ponette through the same trials she underwent in order to become a Child of God. Ponette readily agrees, and is subjected to a battery of playground tests.

Ponette also sneaks into the “God Room” (the school’s small chapel) at night to pray. And she pretends to be sick during class so she can return to her room alone, all in an effort to speak to God in private: “God Almighty, I hope you told mommy that I prayed. It was a prayer for you and for her too. I’m okay. I’ll wait on my bed. That way, it’ll be a secret. No one will see. This is my second prayer and I’m very happy. Thank you, God.”

Still, nothing happens, and God seems mysteriously unresponsive. Ponette wonders, “If God is almighty, why won’t he make a sign? He won’t talk to me. My prayers didn’t do anything. Not for mommy, not for nothing.” She has tried everything there is to try. She has done all the right things. She has been patient. She needs this. Where is God?

Throughout all of this, the film remains completely chained to Ponette’s point of view. The camera tends to be close to the ground, using low-angle shots to include the adult characters, or framing them from the waist down, unless they stoop to speak to Ponette on her own level, or scoop her up to carry her. Ponette’s face is on-screen for almost the entire film, often in extreme close-up, which requires a performance of a caliber that I wouldn’t have suspected anyone this young could deliver (and that few people of any age could match). This is a child so young that it appears perfectly natural when she sucks her thumb throughout the movie. (And, indeed, she became the youngest person to win the Best Actress Award at the prestigious “Venice Film Festival” when Ponette was screened there.)

Her conversations, whether with adults or other children, are extremely short and apt to jump randomly between topics and ideas. While Aunt Claire explains that Ponette’s mother cannot come back like Jesus, Ponette begins talking about flying mice, how they fly, and why no one can see them. Ponette’s friends chatter randomly about candy, games, toys, their parents, their “boyfriends.” They certainly never have any particularly helpful answers to her questions, though they generally seem to want to make her feel better.

ponette3Young children do not tend to sit still and talk, and Ponette is in constant motion, even while in conversation. When her father sets her down on the hood of their car and informs her that her mother is dead, even as she begins to cry she is distractedly climbing up to the roof of the car and sliding down the windshield over and over. Her conversations with Ada about becoming a Child of God take place as she follows the other girl around the playground: walking, jogging, climbing, jumping. She asks her friends why God will not send her a sign while they stand at the sink together brushing their teeth. This seems so natural, and is shot so brilliantly, that it isn’t even noticeable until you start to think about it.

The passage of time remains as hazy for the audience as it is for the young characters, and it is never clear whether days or weeks or months are going by as Ponette grapples with her grief. Individual scenes and sequences feel like vignettes without an identifiable arc; just life going on, as it is apt to do. How will Ponette ever find peace? Will she be able to at all? Her expectations seem to be building towards a visit to the cemetery with her father, who will pick her up on a Friday afternoon. She waits anxiously outside for him to arrive, but she is off by a day; it is only Thursday. Waiting another day seems unthinkable. Waking from a vivid dream about her mother, she sets off to the cemetery on her own in the middle of the night.

It’s not clear how she knows where to go, or how far she travels to get there, but she walks cross-country for hours. She arrives at the cemetery and parks herself at her mother’s grave to wait, but no one comes and nothing happens. Finally, Ponette begins to paw at the dirt and sob for her mother, and her mother appears! She steps into the frame without fanfare, bends down, and scoops Ponette into a hug. They have the conversation Ponette has been dreaming of having for the entire film as her mother walks her back to the school.

ponette8This time, when her mother says goodbye, Ponette knows that she will not see her again. This is clearly a struggle, but she goes on to meet her father, who has been waiting to pick her up. No one seems to have missed her, though she has clearly been gone all day, and contrary to his earlier impatience, her father calmly accepts her story about going to the cemetery alone and spending the day talking to her mother. As they drive off together, Ponette seems happy for the first time, smiling directly into the camera for a brief moment before the car pulls away.

What are we to make of this final sequence? Roger Ebert, reviewing the film in 1997, regarded the ending as a misstep: “Is this a fantasy, or a miracle? A miracle, I fear–and Ponette deserves better. In the real world, when mothers die they don’t come back. Ponette has just about dealt with that when the movie sneaks in a happy ending. She’ll never learn that way.”

I’m not convinced, though. If he’s right about the ending being an invasion of the miraculous, then his judgment is also correct. However, as he also points out, this scene does not seem to be of a piece with the rest of the film. Ponette raises very serious theological questions by starkly revealing mere theology to be unequal to the task of helping a young child accept or understand the death of a loved one. At the same time, it is about the very practical ways that children go about this process on their own. Children are, after all, incredibly resilient.

Ponette spends the film picking her way through the stages of grief. She isolates herself and tries to pretend that her mother still visits her at night. She is angry with her cousins for not caring as much about what has happened as she does. The bulk of the movie revolves around her attempts to bargain with God. I haven’t mentioned perhaps the darkest scene in the movie, where Ponette, depressed after being tormented by a playground bully, asks Matiaz to “make her die” so she can visit her mother in heaven, or alternately, help her kill the bully. Matiaz clearly knows this is a bad plan. (“But if we kill him, Aurélie will yell at us.”) He comforts her as best he can instead.

It doesn’t make sense, then, for Ponette’s conversation with her mother to be the result of a miraculous appearance (like in Danny Boyle’s Millions, for example), or to be a sudden shift into magical realism after an hour and a half of impressively naturalistic situations and dialogue. No, this is the closure Ponette needs in order to accept her mother’s death and move on. It’s the final conversation that they never had, ending most importantly with her mother’s assurance that she loves Ponette.

ponette7She “imagines” it, though I think that’s a clumsy, simplistic way of describing what’s going on in her head in these scenes. There are none of the signifiers that we are conditioned to expect when a movie presents us with a dream sequence or a fantasy, because this is all from Ponette’s point-of-view, and her young mind doesn’t draw a distinction between fantasy and reality. It is all of a piece with the way writer-director Jacques Doillon flawlessly captures the inner life of childhood.

So, what of God in all this? There are many scenes in this movie that are genuinely heartbreaking to watch. A young, innocent child loses her mother pointlessly in a stupid accident that was no one’s fault. She is devastated. She turns to God for consolation, and she gets no answer. Or does she? Obviously she doesn’t get the answer she wants, and she doesn’t get an answer she recognizes as an answer, but by the end she has found the peace that she needs. Does that count as an answer?

Ponette confronts us with the reality that terrible things can and do happen to the people we most want to shield from terrible things. As the father of an almost-three-year old girl, I ached for someone in Ponette’s life who could enfold her with the love and security she needed. But Ponette also ends by comforting us with the possibility of grace and healing. It’s not an easy thing, and it takes time, and that time is filled with pain. But eventually, healing can happen.

ponette4Hopefully, as part of that healing, Ponette can also come to understand, not that God was indifferent to her pain, but that His love and attention were not conditional upon a legalistic model of doing just the right thing to be worthy. She did not need to recite magic words, or undertake a series of playground trials, or fold her hands just so while praying (as she shows Matiaz in one scene). Only when she has utterly exhausted her efforts to insert precisely the correct change into the Deus Ex Machina can something transcendent take place. Maybe she will learn that way, after all.

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~ by Jared on March 14, 2014.

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